By interviewing 12 IT leaders over 12 questions, we’ll get to know each other a little better, and get unique perspectives on the industry. This month, we meet with Brian Miller of Davenport University, based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
What is your official title?
Vice President of Information Technology Services, Chief Information Officer, and Interim Dean for Online Education
What does “IT” mean to you?
IT is how we do business. Especially in education, IT is essentially the conduit through which everything has to pass. So we view ourselves as the enablers of the business and our goals are filtered through that point of view. Everything we do―why, what, and how―has to be part of the business.
What daily task in your job do you find most fulfilling?
Ideation. I spend a ton of my time sitting with people who have problems, and trying to figure out how to solve those things. It’s not always a technology solution, either—a lot of times it’s a process solution, a messaging/branding solution, but most of the time there’s a technology component to it, and so I really enjoy the whole idea of how we can do new things, or do things better than we’d done before.
So at its core, that’s where IT and strategy intersect—people in strategic planning are always asking “what should we do?” “how should we do it?” “who should we be doing it for?” and I think technologists look at most of the world in the same way.
You can choose one common IT problem that you can instantly solve with the snap of your fingers, every time. What problem would that be?
Understanding end-user preferences immediately. When we’re teaching online, we want to know whether students like what we’re doing, and giving a survey is an easy way to get response there. What we can’t find out from a survey, however, is why some students decided against attending Davenport.
Did they dislike the virtual classroom? Did we not provide a service that they needed? A similar problem applies to our business customers internal to the university.
If we’re working on a new tool, it’s difficult to gauge what people will and won’t like on the fly. We try to solve it through prototypes and things like that, but it’s always something that, if we just knew what people desired right off the bat, that’d be awesome.
If you could instill one habit in every one of your customers and colleagues, what would that be?
I would love to instill inquisitiveness in our customers—that applies to my colleagues too, but I think we’ve reached that point already. When we sit with people to solve problems, the way to do that is by either asking new questions, or asking old questions without accepting the old answer. I feel that this type of inquisitiveness is a practiced habit, and not just a personality characteristic, and if you could get every customer of a technology service to question what it is they really wanted, and why they’re really doing things and how they should be doing it, I think you’d be getting better answers. I like to use the five-whys technique to encourage this type of analysis. It doesn’t have to be precisely five, but asking “why” over and over again helps get to the root of the issue.
What’s one step that you never miss when taking on a large project?
One thing we’re careful NEVER to miss, is planning for the communication and training phase of a project.
For many years, I was a software developer, and then a project manager, and then a leader of IT. In my head, that’s how I saw the world—a software developer always jumps right to a solution, and once that’s deployed, then you’re done! The project manager always looks and decides they need milestones related to deployment—how do you we get this solution out there? To get people to play with it? To ensure that it works? The leader in me can see that all of those needs go back to communication and training, and in turn end up occupying a ton of time in projects.
We roll out many projects that end up being more about deployment and training than they are about crafting new solutions!
What has been your most memorable support issue in IT?
This is more of a “lack of support” issue, but I’ll give you a vague story there. As a consumer of services from a large education software vendor, we’ve had a few periods of time where they roll out changes to their software without first communicating them, and we end up with our customers furious about something that’s gone wrong during a really critical period of work.
I’ll give you an example of this issue: the developer only updates their service a couple times a year, and they’re huge, significant upgrades. So over one Thanksgiving, we rolled out the big update, and it was full of problems immediately—it’s already the holiday weekend, and we’re stuck testing the software. So we get in touch with the developer, and they say refuse to support it because it’s a holiday weekend!
We ended up spending 3 weeks working on it before identifying a real bug in the software, impacting one of our major business functions, and the response from them was “well, we’ll have another update in April, so we’ll fix it then.” And that was it, so we just had to wait five months with bad software.
Can you tell us more about your background, or a passion you have outside of IT/technology?
Well, I’m a father of two awesome daughters, and I’ve got a very cool wife. I love mountain biking and fat biking—backpacking, hiking, camping—pretty much anything outdoors. Cooking is another big one—I think cooking and software design are nearly identical, in that 80% of it is following directions, and 20% is making stuff up on the fly!
What was your favorite 1990s (or fading) piece of technology?
This one is not at all 90s, but the Nintendo Wii. It’s, what, 10 years old? To me, it is magic that something 10 years old still sells so well.
If we’re going way back, though, I’m going to say the Palm Pilot—Newmind’s CEO Matt Vollmar and I used to work for a software company that developed some programs for them. It took the idea of mobility and made it real for people—moreso than phones, in my opinion. Cellphones are definitely important, but you could take one look at the Palm Pilot today and know immediately that it was the grandfather of the entire computing industry today.
If you saw them when they were out, you could tell that it was going to be a real important concept—to have an actual computer in your pocket. Even considering how silly those little things were, compared to what we have now. It’s probably my favorite old piece of technology because you could just see the future as soon as it came out.
Or the Nintendo Powerglove. Because who doesn’t love the idea of those?! Even if they were actually horrible.
What is the Medieval equivalent of an IT professional?
The Alchemist, for sure. The roots of alchemy, if you trace them back, were probably based on some real science—just like how today, what we do in IT is mostly basic stuff—to us. But to people who don’t get technology, IT just seems like this black art that IT folks bring to bear on their behalf. And most of the time, it works! And sometimes it blows up spectacularly.
If you could have lunch with any technologist/innovator that’s ever lived who would it be?
I think might pick Alan Turing’s brain. I just saw The Imitation Game, which was awesome, and I’d love to meet someone who came up with the idea of computers, but didn’t have access to electronic circuitry. It’s like magic to me.
Is step 1 always, “turn it off, then on”?
Absolutely! Of course it is. Most of the time it works, you might as well try it… I do it with my car’s bluetooth all the time, haha.
If you could make one piece of SciFi or futuristic piece of technology a reality, what would it be?
Oh, the teleporter, for sure, how awesome would that be? Straight out of Star Trek—the shimmering waves of atoms and all that stuff.
That or the Ansible, from Ender’s Game. It lets Earth and all the planetary colonies communicate seamlessly in real time. Even if it took multiple generations to get somewhere else—the fact that you could communicate all the current events across ridiculous amounts of space, it’s really not all that different from getting a news feed from India—we can know everything that’s going on there, down to the minute, without actually visiting.